children jumpingBefore landing in Portland for the AMLE 2012 Conference, I just spent three fun-filled days with my nieces and nephews in Idaho, two of whom are in middle school. It reminded me how crucial the middle school years are, and how too frequently we lose students during these years because we don’t engage their natural curiosity, their need to move, to collaborate, or really take advantage of many of their strengths.

When I asked my niece each day to tell me about school, she shared that she spent the day listening to boring teachers talk—each day it was the same.  Katelynn’s a good student and has an active social life, so it’s not that she’s not good at school or doesn’t have friends there; she’s just not being allowed to be an active part of her own education.

Similarly, the highlight of Dillon’s week was an after-school trip (school-sponsored) to go rock climbing—I immediately thought of him when Dr. John Medina (check out his book Brain Rules) shared his research on how important physical activity is for supporting learning.  I know Dillon would learn much better if he were more physically engaged during his classes.

When I helped Dillon with his 6th-grade homework, I mostly understood why he was doing multiplication drills. As a former teacher, I recognize that it’s important to maintain speed. Still, I would have been happier though if he had been encouraged to set some personal goals for completing the math worksheets. It’s important for students to learn to monitor their own learning and to understand the purpose of their homework.

I was, however, appalled that he had to complete two language arts worksheets that were fill-in the blank sentences—with three choices provided! The words were appropriate for 2nd grade, not 6th grade, and Dillon’s reading on at least a 9th grade level. Instead of these language arts worksheets, what if they had done carousel brainstorming, or flipped word parts to understand prefixes and roots, learned compound words by using cards to match pairs, or used the jigsaw process to do a close reading collaboratively?

Contrasting the homework worksheets was our trip to the vet for Dillon’s two leopard geckos. I was struck by how much knew about their habitats, diets, shedding cycles, etc. He had investigated which vets handled reptiles and scheduled the appointment himself, and was incredibly articulate with his questions for the vet. Dillon had also done extensive research before choosing the species, drafted several sophisticated arguments as to why his parents should allow him to buy them, and had designed a budget for their maintenance.  He had to understand why the tank had to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity, why he had to add calcium to their food, and how to calculate their medicine doses. This was true learning—so different than filling in science worksheets!

Middle school students will go to great lengths to teach themselves when they care about the subject matter, yet we rarely tap into their natural curiosity.  I know some amazing middle school teachers who truly understand how young people learn—I just don’t know enough of them.

I’m looking forward to being inspired by the remaining AMLE presentations over the next two days!


trustChris Lehman’s call to arms for those of us in education to remember that we have a responsibility to hold the public trust resonated with me. As a co-founder of an edtech company, LessonCast Learning, and curriculum and professional developer in a large district, I take this responsibility very seriously. I share Chris’ disappointment when this trust is violated, and unfortunately, as Chris indicates, it seems to happen too often.

Of course, cheating scandals, and covering up cheating scandals are clear-cut violations. However, when we’re not thoughtful about finding the best deal on buying simple supplies like markers, we’re also not taking the best care of the public’s limited resources.  When we waste teachers’ time by not carefully preparing professional development opportunities, we’re also not honoring precious resources.

Our work in edtech focuses on providing real solutions for real education problems because we care deeply about impacting schools.  I entered and have remained in education because I see it as a social justice issue.  I could have joined the business world and risen the ranks with an accompanying high salary. There are also significantly larger markets than education—for me, they’re just not as important, which is why I’m discouraged when folks enter the edtech community who care little about solving real problems in education. Too many see edtech simply as an emerging market with potential for high profits. (There are many notable exceptions! I’ve been deeply impressed with the integrity and dedication of many of my colleagues.)

For example, instead of thinking through how the new Common Core State Standards will impact student learning, the focus of some companies is on how this can be made into an opportunity to make money.  Schools are frightened and confused about how to meet the new demands and are too often willing to try anything that claims to be the solution.  If as an edtech company, we can support schools by providing meaningful services and products, then we are upholding the public trust. If we haven’t thoroughly researched and thought through our services, then we are not upholding that trust and essentially have become snake oil salesmen.

Now, I believe that edtech companies should make money—the value we contribute to a learning community should be compensated fairly. On a practical level, companies need to pay their bills, and we need funds to continue to improve our services to better meet the needs of schools.  Also, when schools pay a reasonable price for a product or service, they’re able to demand more from their partners and they’re able to depend on the product remaining available. Free services have no obligation to make adjustments to meet a school’s needs or even to remain free.  It’s important for a partnering company to have a genuine relationship with the school community it serves.

The big question each edtech company needs to ask itself is the product or service it’s offering worthy of public funds? Will it have enough impact on learning to warrant a school allocating precious funds from its limited budget?

If not, we’re abusing the trust placed in us by taxpayers, and more importantly, we’re essentially stealing from children who deserve a high-quality education. We’re not willing to do that, which is why our team keeps these questions at the forefront as we strive to make sure our services truly impact schools.

adult learner

Adult learners have different needs than our students, so we need to design professional development differently.  (Think andragogy vs. pedagogy. This piece, focusing on Malcolm Knowles, will be the first of several that examine different theoretical lenses about teaching the adult learner while keeping them practical. )

When designing professional learning, I try to consider the following five adapted from Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions (in italics) about the adult learner because they still feel relevant today:

1. Adults need to know the reason for learning something (relevance). Teachers and administrators need to know from the beginning what and why they should take the time and energy to learn something new. For example, how will it make them more effective teachers? Are there new professional expectations, such as the Common Core State Standards?  Will this new learning help them understand a new evaluation system? Will they be able to reach more students than they did before?  The context for professional learning should be shared upfront and should be clearly relevant.

2. Adults are interested in learning content that has immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives (readiness to learn and orientation to learning).  Early in life—during college years for example—people are more comfortable learning information that they may use later. Adults, on the other hand, need their learning to be immediately applicable and practical. Adults live complex lives with multiple responsibilities, so they don’t feel they have the luxury of learning lots of theory without direct application.

When designing professional learning, make sure it connects directly to classroom use. I always ask myself, have I given them everything—the what, why and how, and the resources–that they need to be able to implement the strategy being introduced and/or adapt it for their students?

3. Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning process (experience). It’s important to remember to acknowledge the range of experience in the room. Going further, we need to design multiple opportunities for educators to share their experiences in meaningful ways during professional learning. Adult educators can enrich professional development experiences for all participants if given the opportunity.  The collective wisdom of the room far outweighs any one individual, including the presenter.

4. Adults are more self-directed in their learning (self-concept and motivation to learn).  Knowles’ discussion of mature learners becoming more motivated by internal incentives applies to professional learning in that we should provide opportunities for choice and for participants to work out aspects of the learning for themselves. Allow time for participants to problem-solve during the professional development session. Adults don’t respond well to having others tell them what they should do instead of involving them in the process.  Whenever possible, I also try to involve participants in defining the goals of professional learning initiatives during initial planning stages.

5.   Adults need a collaborative, respectful environment.  Children need collaborative, respectful environments as well, but it’s important to establish an environment where teachers feel that their expertise is respected and where there’s a high comfort level with sharing and expanding on each other’s ideas, a place where it’s also safe to admit not knowing the answers. Most adults crave a social aspect to their learning; so much of teaching is solitary that teachers appreciate the time to learn and collaborate with their colleagues.

Essentially, we need to provide professional learning opportunities that are relevant, collaborative, immediately applicable, job-embedded and make extensive use of the rich experiences participants bring. 


As a country do we truly believe in independence, freedom and equality for all? On this Fourth of July, my thoughts run to the traditional topics but I tend to see everything through an education lens, so today is no different.

I fundamentally believe that a person is not free until he or she has equal access to high-quality educational opportunities. When we speak of the achievement gap, what we really mean is an opportunity gap, which I’ll continue to write about more fully.

When we think through funding equality, we need to think beyond numbers if we truly want equal access to opportunity.

Our county, for example, assigns the number of counselors at a school based on student numbers. At first glance this seems reasonably fair. Until you look the realities of the schools. Several of our schools have over 50% mobility rates, which means those counselors are processing significantly more students who are also likely to have significantly higher needs.  Each of those students receives less individualized attention because counselors are assigned “equally” based on numbers.

In an elementary school where students come to school hungry and unprepared with the skills needed to interact successfully in a school setting, the same number of counselors and teachers are assigned as a school in a higher socioeconomic neighborhood. Again, on the surface it looks like equal treatment because the numbers are the same. However, for those children in lower socioeconomic areas to truly have equal access to the educational opportunities, they need more supports initially.

We need to think about equity and access to opportunity more complexly than simple number calculations. How far are we willing to go to provide real access?


On our return trip from ISTE, our LessonCast team stopped over in San Francisco for an EdTech Meetup featuring Eric Reis. Wayee Chu from New Schools Venture Fund and Alan Louie from Imagine K12 began the event by introducing companies that launched through their respective incubators—great to see friends from Junyo, GoalBook, ClassDojo, and Remind101 all in the same room.  Also reconnected with friends from MySciHigh, Kidblog and Plickers. (Missed my friend from!)

Jennifer Carolan, from New Schools Venture Fund and longtime friend of Eric Reis, interviewed Reis before opening the floor to questions from startup teams.  This was the 3rd time I’ve heard Eric speak, so though the fundamental philosophy was not new, it was good to hear his theories applied to EdTech.

Reis began the event by sharing that “magazine profiles are all lies—they make it seem like a founder has a great idea and boom it takes off,” and his case is no exception. It’s what I call the movie montage effect—all of the hard work blurs by moving the audience from great idea to success. Social Network implies overnight success through its mid-movie montage–when in reality all of these ideas take work, sometimes years of work. (The same effect exists in music; bands routinely do the circuit for 2 years before they’re “discovered” and become an “overnight success.”) Americans are in love with the mirage of rags to riches stories.

Assuming a basic understanding of lean startup thinking, here are a few of my takeaways from this chat:

1. Do we have enough courage we need to maintain our laser focus and not get distracted by good ideas?I love this question because I’m prone to being pulled by lots of intriguing ideas, which can distract from an absolute focus on testing our main idea.  Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals recently shared a similar strategy in the July/August edition of Inc Magazine as his company decided to retire some profitable ventures because they took away from their main focus. Sometimes the decision to put aside a fabulous idea is the prudent call.  Keeping a board with cool ideas to test later has helped me maintain focus without feeling like I’ll forget an idea I want to remember later.

2. No matter what you do, you will be embarrassed by your first product. Reis further stated that “if embarrassment bothers you, then you’re in the wrong business.” Reis clarified that an MVP does not mean low quality however. Instead it’s more about releasing a product in its simplest form. Reis somewhat jokingly argued that early adopters essentially have mental illnesses or defects, though he acknowledged that sometimes it’s more because the problem is too big and they’re willing to try anything. The traditional early adopters actually prefer a product that isn’t quite perfect because they want to feel special.  The MVP is more about creating opportunities for real learning than it is as much about releasing a product. Reis argued that any work that’s beyond what early adopters require is a waste.  You should have released it sooner if it has more than the early adopters required.

3. People are “predictably irrational,” which means we have to submit everything to empirical testing, even if logic dictates a particular response.I was particularly struck by the discussion around business models. Too many companies, especially in EdTech, believe that if you get teachers and students on board, then the districts will buy it. Reis acknowledges that this is logical, but asks is that how it really works? Does the district care what teachers and students think? It’s important to test the question.

Working in the central office of a large district (with over 100,000 students), I know from personal experience that this kind of logic does not dictate district-buying decisions. The process is far more convoluted and often disregards what teachers want entirely. Companies that are relying on a student/teacher adoption to lead to district adoption don’t truly understand how the system functions in reality.

Reis stressed that we have a mental model of how the world should work/does work but that’s never based in reality. We must ground our work in reality without abdicating our responsibility to hold our vision as entrepreneurs. We need to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads. Great entrepreneurs can one day believe they have the best idea ever, then the next day share the data and realize “they’re doomed.”  Well, I’ve certainly felt both, sometimes all in the same day!

4. We don’t need viral growth across everywhere. We really only need to put pressure on one school, one district to see if the premise holds. Then test from there.

5. How do we learn in a high stakes environment like classrooms? So glad that this issue was raised! As a lifetime educator, it’s important to me that companies recognize that students are not simply laboratories to be exploited. In addition, public school teachers are also under a very trigger-happy gun with the increasing federal expectations for student achievement. As NCLB moves to 100%, schools are panicking and will be reluctant to deviate from established practices. (Charter and independent schools offer opportunities for EdTech, as long as we recognize that the results may be entirely different in a public school environment. The charter and independent school market are limited.)

Reis suggested that one option is targeting the students who are already not fitting into the system.  When early on in my career, I first began teaching in a low-performing school in North Philly, I was given essentially free reign with my students because my particular students had been unsuccessful in traditional environments. The school administration really only cared that my students weren’t disruptive. Anything beyond that was a plus. Within this context, I was able to be creative about reaching these students—this early experience makes me believe that the strategy of targeting students on the margins may work because the risk is lower for schools.

At first glance, it might seem that what you’re really testing would only apply to high-risk students but the reality is that much of what is successful in alternative education programs is really just good teaching. These practices are just effective, if not more so, with “traditional” populations. The real difference is that many traditional students have been trained to put up with mediocre teaching, so they don’t resist.

6. Be wary of the false sense of familiarity with the education market because we all went through school. Reis acknowledged that if you’re actually a domain expert in one of these education markets, then you can skip some of the steps because you know the answers.  As an “actual domain expert,” I still recognize though that what is true of the districts/schools where I’ve worked may not be true of districts and schools across the US. I still learned much from testing our ideas with a wide range of folks.

Reis also reminded us that we need to know all three groups really well—students, teachers and administrators, for ex. It’s a complicated model and to be successful we need to know all components well, not just one or two.

If organizations don’t have insider knowledge, outsiders can sometimes use this outside perspective to advantage by playing the “naïve questioner.”

7. Avoid the trap of success theater by “only making promises to investors about things you care about—be specific about what you want to learn, and then be clear about what you did learn.”   Too often entrepreneurs aren’t clear about setting realistic goals and measurement accountability posts, then find themselves wasting time and energy making themselves look like they’re meeting the expectations they set.  Just be realistic and specific from the beginning.

8. Don’t repackage bad ideas within lean jargon when pitching to investors. It doesn’t work, and you’re missing the point.

9. Khalid Smith, my cofounder of LessonCast and global leader for Startup Weekend EDU, raised one of the most important questions for me: Are students learning? In the education space, we should not simply be concerned with customer acquisition, but our focus should also be on whether or not we’re making things better.

Reis acknowledged this issue in other domains as well—too often businesses simply focus on whether or not their customers are happy, not necessarily if their services are making them more effective. In other businesses, this may not be as important, but in education children are the end users, so we can’t simply make them happy or make their parents happy or make their teachers happy. We can’t lose sight of the goal to make teachers more effective and to make sure that what we’re offering helps students learn. Otherwise, we’re failing our kids.

10. Final advice: don’t listen to Eric Reis or any other expert.  As Reis shared, most advice is anecdotal; experts who suggest a theory are more useful because the theory can be tested in on a micro-scale. Everything we do should be based on real data, real empirical evidence, not simply someone else’s advice.

Thanks again for all of the organizers of this event!

Some great takeaways from an Edtech event with Eric Reis, expert on lean startup thinking.

About 26 minutes into his weekly podcast with Audrey Watters, Steve Hargadon asks the astute question: Are there times when we’re tricked into thinking that technology is going to solve problems that are not easy to solve? As much as we want to believe, the perfect tech tool is not going to be developed that will solve all of our education problems. Why not?

Because changing teacher practice is hard work; changing practice on a school level is even more difficult.  Education companies that promise to solve all student achievement problems without consistent change in practice truly don’t understand what it takes to transform a school.  Fundamentally, they don’t understand what makes great teaching.  If the public believes that technology can bypass a teacher or make learning “teacher-proof,” then we’re devaluing the incredibly difficult craft of teaching and of leading a school.

It takes years to become a good teacher, even more years to become a great teacher.  Every classroom is different, every child is different. Teachers must plan for and adapt to the changing needs of students, often on the spot when a lesson takes an unexpected turn. Technology cannot replace this accumulated wisdom.

So, What Can We Expect Technology to Solve?

Technology can offer solutions to time-intensive processes that are less about teaching and more about administrative tasks. Technology can provide easier access to a wider range of resources, including human resources. Data that can be used to drive instruction can be collected and displayed more efficiently with tech tools. Technology can provide tools to help facilitate tasks.

While I was turning over these ideas in my head, the podcast conversation turned to innovative approaches to professional development, my deep passion. Steve Hargadon shared that he loves the idea of teachers filming themselves, but recognized that this could only really work well in a focused community, such as a school, that would provide safety and the time to do this. (Our research shows this to be true; in fact, most teachers are very uncomfortable with seeing themselves on camera.)

As I was nodding my head in agreement, Audrey advocated for technology to help shift professional development from lecture style to more hands-on, and then—pleasantly surprising– she mentioned LessonCast as one edtech company innovating professional learning.  She nailed our belief that professional learning must be consistent, job-embedded, tied to clear initiatives, and chunked so as not to become overwhelming.

Audrey also shared one of our secret learnings: the process of creating a lessoncast is a form of professional development in itself because what makes great teachers and great instructional leaders includes time for thoughtful reflection and collaboration.  Creating a lessoncast fosters reflection, and sharing a lessoncast provides a compact focus for collaboration with meaningful conversations about how strategies can be adapted for the specific needs of each set of students.

Technology becomes transformative , not when it replaces the work and the relationship building, but when it facilitates what we already know to be good practice.

Following on the heels of Audrey Watters’ public posting, I too decided to make my response to Alice Bell’s edublogger survey.

Blog URL: and

What do you blog about?  I enjoy blogging about education issues, including discussions about reform movements, issues facing teachers and administrators, the importance of STEM education, the need to redesign professional development to make it more job-embedded and tied to improving student outcomes, a need to shift to a transdisciplinary approach to learning, and perhaps most often, the importance of educators being at the font line of developing educational technologies that support our work with students.

Are you paid to blog? No, I blog because I enjoy it, and feel that more educators need to participate in the larger conversations about education. It also ensures that I take the time to reflect on

What do you do professionally (other than blog)? I work in the central office of a large school district, primarily working on literacy across the content areas. I am also the community developer for LessonCast Learning.

How long have you been blogging at this site? I started blogging less than a year ago, and wonder why I did not blog previous to that. Blogging has lifted me into a different world, one that is more expansive.

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?) I used to write in more print forms, but not for years.

Can you remember why you started blogging? I felt teachers didn’t have a voice in the education reform conversations, and wanted to share what I was learning over the past year. There was a moment when I was listening to non-educators at the forefront of educational reform and I realized the issue was not that many of these groups did not know how to scale good teaching—they actually did not recognize what makes good teaching. I wanted to add authenticity to the conversation.

What keeps you blogging?  Articles, events or conversations will people will trigger ideas. I also often blog about events and conferences I attend as a way to reflect and share what I’m learning.  Now that I am no longer in the classroom directly, blogging helps feed my need to share

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How? Generally over a thousand people access my blog, but not sure how many read each entry. I often assume far fewer people are reading my blogs than really are, so I am continually surprised when someone will make a comment about a blog that makes me realize he or she has been silently following me. Of course, there are my loyal followers, who I appreciate!

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog? The first few folks who interacted with my blogs were colleagues interested in similar issues, people I knew from face-to-face relationships. Over time I have come to interact with many people I have met through social media. At a recent ASCD conference, I was able to meet in person people I met through my blogs, which was wonderful.

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre of blogging? (e.g. schools, science, education, museums, technology) My blogging community involves largely two groups—those in the edtech community and those on the front lines of education. My goal is to have more people from both groups talking to one another.

If so, what does that community give you?  My online community continues to challenge my thinking, provides me access to immediate information about relevant issues, and sustains me when I grow disheartened.

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? As a less structured form, blogging allows flexibility to respond more formally and more informally, depending on the subject. When I am tweeting at a conference, for example, sometimes I want to respond more thoughtfully in a longer post. Blogging makes that possible, and then I can tweet it out. A blog can begin a conversation among folks invested in similar issues. Because it’s a more immediate form, there isn’t the same pressure to make sure it’s perfect and has gone through multiple revisions before publication, which means the conversations can be more timely.

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)  Though rarely mention that I blog when at work, many of my colleagues, friends and family know that I do because I post links on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked? I am proud that I encouraged several principal friends of mine to blog as well!

We need to listen to what students tell us by their actions.

Several weeks ago someone tweeted the question about which students should get priority—the disruptive ones or the ones who want to learn. My response was that we’re asking the wrong questions. We need to ask, why is this student being disruptive? Is this child asking us for help in dealing with difficult situations in his or her life? Is there something we can change about our curriculum and/or instruction that would better meet the needs of this child?

Of course, sometimes the reasons a child is acting out are more complicated and involve factors outside of the school. Still, our response should then be to ask why this child is literally screaming out for our attention.   In a  blog response, Cord Jefferson shares this touching story to illustrate this point:

A kid at her school—a primarily low-income, high-minority middle school serving sixth- through eighth-graders—was acting out. His outbursts were not normal, especially considering how young he was: He was rude, aggressive, destructive, foulmouthed, so angry. I remember my mom saying she was amazed at how much rage could fit into such a tiny body.

At first, the student’s teachers tried putting him in timeout. When that didn’t work, they escalated to trips to the principal’s office. When those didn’t work, he got detention after school. And when that didn’t work either, they started sending him home. But when he’d return from a couple of days at home and immediately start tearing his classrooms apart, the suspensions grew to a week, two weeks.

Still nothing worked, and one day things got scary enough that my mom, accompanied by a police officer, felt it necessary to escort the student home to speak with his parents. When they got to his apartment about a mile away from the school, the weeks of mystery surrounding the boys’ behavior were replaced with instant clarity. His mother, his only guardian, answered the door ashamedly, and out scurried a man, her most recent john.

After some talking and crying, the truth surfaced: The reason the “problem student” behaved so badly is because he knew that if his tantrums were chronic, he’d be sent home. And that was a good thing, because when he was home, his mother couldn’t work as a prostitute. He couldn’t tell any of his teachers this, of course, because then he’d run the risk of child welfare services taking him away from his mother, and he needed to be there to protect her. The boy never hated school, he just loved his mom more. This is how you get so much rage into such a tiny body.

Students act out for reasons: boredom, pain, anger, fear of failure, fear of looking smart, mental illness, learning differences, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Before assuming students are ill-intentioned, we must discover the root cause of student behavior. This is not to say that students shouldn’t have consequences—they should. However, we must remember that students are children, and they’re often sharing information with us the only way they know how. Instead of only focusing on disciplinary action, let’s also take the time to see how we can change the origin of the problem, or change how we’re delivering our curriculum.

We need to listen.


Individualism in Education

I’ve been returning recently to a conversation I had in January when walking to dinner with Steve Hargadon during EduCon.  We were discussing Finland’s high performance on the international benchmarking assessment, the PISA. There was initial puzzlement when Finland was announced as one of the top 5 scoring countries because so much of their educational structure was quite different from the other high scoring countries. What became apparent though is that the one theme the Finnish could agree on collectively was a narrative of equity.

We’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity, but in reality Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation, the college he dropped out of was a small university– Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connection and access.

What might be a narrative Americans could rally around? Perhaps individualization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism.”  Parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents will support efforts to a tailored approach to education. As teachers and administrators, we’re moving on a trajectory toward individualization with our shifts toward differentiation and universal design for learning.

What will it take for education reform to rally behind individualization? At the very least, we must shift from being  an educator being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Teachers will never become obsolete—this movement is not about replacing teachers with Khan Academy-like videos and gamified instruction. Clearly these are tools that can support instruction. How we teach must change significantly.

In the end though, it’s most often the relationship between the teacher and the student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards individualization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning.


brain cells

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my recent work has focused on literacy across the content areas. As part of this work I’ve been asked to distinguish between content literacy, interdisciplinary literacy and transdisciplinary, so I thought I’d share the definitions I’ve been developing.

Background: The CCSS emphasize the integrated nature of reading, writing, research, speaking, listening, language, and to a more limited degree, mathematics within and across content areas. The CCSS shift the focus from “learning to read and write” to “reading and writing to learn,” especially from third grade forward. In addition, students also write “to persuade, to explain, and to convey real or imagined experience” across content areas. The increased focus on informational text also aligns with a transdisciplinary approach.

In addition to specific grade-level standards, the CCSS argue that college and career ready students also master competencies that transfer across content areas. Specifically, the CCSS Capacities of a Literate Individual posit that students demonstrate independence; build strong content knowledge; respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline; comprehend as well as critique; value evidence; use technology and digital media strategically and capably; and come to understand other perspectives and cultures. Similarly, the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practices support transferable practices: students should make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, model with mathematics, use appropriate tools strategically, attend to precision, look for and make use of structure, and look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Historically, content-area literacy has been defined as reading, writing, speaking, listening, and communicating for the purpose of constructing and applying knowledge in the areas of social studies, science, mathematics, and technical subjects. Implied in this definition is the recognition that texts include diagrams, charts, and other non-print, multimedia, and digital texts. With an interdisciplinary approach, the curriculum and instruction are centered on common learning across disciplines.  In this way, the teachers of different disciplines develop a common theme among their content areas and teach those concepts within their respective classes. While interdisciplinary units provide valuable real-life connections, they often lack authenticity, and some topics may feel forced into the curriculum.

A transdisciplinary approach moves curriculum and instruction beyond content-area literacy and interdisciplinary connections.  In full implementation, a transdisciplinary approach involves the organization of curriculum and instruction around authentic student questions where concepts and skills are developed through real-world context.  Inquiry is at the heart of the transdisciplinary approach as students seek answers to the questions raised by the curriculum and themselves.  Because the CCSS are mastery standards, within a transdisciplinary framework students must meet all content areas standards through the course of each year. Direct instruction still plays an integral role; students should not be expected to acquire skills solely on their own. (Transdisciplinary instruction should not be a reincarnation of the disastrous whole language movement.) Given the current structures of schools, a transdisciplinary approach will likely look different at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

A transdisciplinary approach aligns with local, state and national initiatives. For example,Universal Design for Learning principles pervade a transdisciplinary approach in that typically students access multiple means of representation, action, expression and engagement. Traditional twentieth-century skills such as the 4 C’s–collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving—are seamlessly embedded in a transdisciplinary approach. Student engagement increases for all students, including traditionally underperforming populations, because learning is relevant, challenging, hands-on, and connected to authentic experiences. Transdisciplinary instruction can also be a more efficient use of classroom time because multiple content areas are taught and reinforced throughout curricula.  Repeated interaction with content and skills move students from exposure to mastery.  Students shift from rote learning to learning for a clear purpose, essentially learning how to effectively apply what they already know and how to find out what they do not.